The discussion that the scientists in Nature and Science called for should remain in realism, not go on to superhumans

Just over a week ago, prominent scientists in Nature and Science called for a ban for DNA modification in human embryos. This is because the scientists presume that now it actually would be possible to alter the genome in a human embryo in order to treat genetic diseases. Consequently, this would result in modified DNA in germ cells that would be inherited to future generations. The scientists wish to have a full ethical, legal, and public discussion before any germ-line modifications will be made. Furthermore, issues of safety are of importance.

The scientists’ statement is of utmost importance and hopefully this ethical, legal, and public discussion will emerge. However, the discussion on germ-line DNA modification is at danger if the debate will be taken to the level of science fictional superhumans, as already has happen. Not only can such discussion cause unnecessary public worry, it also leads the deliberation away from the actual and urgent questions.

The traditional genetic therapy for somatic cells implies genetic modification of target cells. By knocking out or adding a gene in the target cells the functions of the cells can be altered and this has a therapeutic effect: for example, in inhibiting the growth of a cancer cell, or making the cell produce a lacking enzyme. These modifications take place only in the target cells or tissue. However, if the genetic modification will be made to the embryo, the modification will be inherited to all the cells of the future human being – including the germ cells. Consequently, the modification will be passed to potential progeny.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.